I love my dogs. Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those weird people (you know the ones) who talk to their pets in squeaky baby voices, buy them pretty collars and soft beds, cry on their fur after a bad day. I call them my “fur-babies.” I haven’t yet started buying them Halloween costumes, but if I don’t have human babies soon, its only a matter of time.
We adopted both our dogs from the same shelter. Amos, our first pet, is a wrinkly, cuddly, stinky mess of a beagle pug mix, otherwise known as a puggle. He deserves his old man/biblical prophet name, as his face perpetually looks mournful due to his sagging facial skin. We call him “spot jacker” because no matter how asleep he may seem, he always takes the warm place you were just sitting in if you get up to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn during a movie. He goes crazy whenever he smells chocolate. He sleeps with his head on a pillow like a human. He snores louder than my husband with a cold. All day.
We adopted Lucy last summer when we decided that Amos needed a buddy, mostly to remind him that he is, in fact, a canine. We thought a seven pound chihuahua mix would be a perfect addition to the house–a sweet little girl, submissive and barely noticeable, just a tiny little thing to distract Amos so he wouldn’t be so needy — like I said before, he’s a cuddler. Lucy fit this description…for a few hours. But a big personality came in a tiny package. She uses Amos’s face skin as a tug-of-war toy, she pulls off my socks and attacks my toes if she’s bored, she growls at pit bulls ten times her size. She wakes me up in the morning when she’s hungry by perching on my chest, fixing me with an unblinking stare, and furiously wagging her little stub of a tail. Her nickname, if you can guess, is “little beasty.” Or occasionally, simply “monster.” Oh, and if she gets excited she pees all over herself.
So why all this talk about my dogs?
Well, first because I love them. And because living with them has taught me a few things about God.
For all of you non-dog people now rolling your eyes, let me digress into telling a story. Sorry, it’s still about animals, but this time we’re talking sheep. Sheep don’t jump on you or try to lick your face, so try to give them a chance.
Once upon a time, a man had a hundred sheep. He knew each of them by sight, and one day when he looked out over the herd, he noticed that a particular sheep was missing. Trusting the rest of the herd to stay together where they happily chomped away at a lush patch of grass, the man headed into the rocky hills where he figured the lone sheep had wandered.
Thorns tore at his clothes. He narrowly missed placing his hand on a rattlesnake sunning itself on a ledge. He kept his ears tuned to any hint of a lion, which would eat him just as readily as the lone sheep, if he didn’t find it in time. The sharp rocks cut his hands despite his calluses, leaving a crimson trail behind him in the hot sand.
Finally, after hours of sweaty searching, the man heard a faint bleating. The echoing, panicked cry led him to a rocky pit. At the bottom, there was his sheep. Using the last reserves of his strength, the man climbed down the crumbling wall of the hole, hoisted the frantically bleating sheep over his shoulders, and struggled back out into the sun. After applying soothing oil to the animal’s scratches and bruises, he took the beast on his shoulders once again and made his way back to the pleasant valley and the rest of the flock.
If you recognize this story, that’s probably because its’s one of a series of parables that Jesus relates to a large crowd, as recorded in Luke 15. Luke tells us that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners and tax collectors,” and that the religious authorities of the day, the Pharisees, are scandalized by the sort of company he chooses to keep. Jesus offers this story as an explanation.
Now back to my dogs.
Amos ran away once. It was in the middle of a pouring deluge, a sudden and terrific summer thunderstorm, and his extra neck skin made it easy for him to pull out of a wet collar. He’s not particularly afraid of thunder; I suppose he thought he could do better on his own, find a place safe and dry and warm if he wasn’t forced to obey the person holding the leash. In any case, we and a collection of friends and neighbors ran around in the dark and the rain for what seemed an eternity, calling and calling and calling Amos’s name between cracks of thunder.
As it turned out, he was circling the block as we were chasing him, too scared to stop, but just smart enough to know the general location of his home. He ran in the same direction we were chasing, round and round the same path. Someone sitting on their porch told us they had seen him pass several times, so we switched directions and caught him. All he would have had to do is stop, and we would have found him earlier and brought him in out of the rain. Or better, he could have just not run away in the first place.
But Amos is dumb. I love him, but he just is. He doesn’t know what’s best for him. If he didn’t have my husband and me, if he didn’t have a master, he would die. If he did whatever he wanted, he would run into traffic, he would get lost, he would pick fights with mean dogs, he would eat that half box of tacos somebody left on the sidewalk. He would do whatever seemed best to him, and that would kill him.
As I carried him back into the warm apartment after we found him that night, I was so angry and so happy to see him that I just cried and squeezed him till he stopped shaking. Stupid dog. Stupid, precious dog I love so much.
I don’t know about all of you, but when I do stupid things I feel like God hates me. I feel like He’s looking down on me, disappointed and angry, giving me a silent look that says, “You got yourself into this mess. Now you’re going to have to get yourself out of it.” And in the times that I’ve run away, I feel like God will never be able to love me again, even if He condescends to accept me crawling back.
That makes me a Pharisee.
But Jesus, talking and laughing with a rough crowd, corrects that perspective. He tells a story about a man, just like any good shepherd, who goes after a lost sheep. His story doesn’t talk about how stupid the sheep is, how the sheep deserved to be eaten by a lion. He focuses on the shepherd and how he without question goes after that one sheep.
Jesus implies that if a shepherd, as a part of his job, is willing to risk injury and death to find one stupid sheep, one of a hundred, then how much more do you think God is willing to do for just one human being? A human being that He made? A human being that He loves?
Most often we talk about this passage to remind church people to break down their walls and care about those God cares about, the “sinners” that a lot of religious people would rather avoid. But I think we sometimes forget: we are all those sinners. Even if we’ve already accepted God’s mercy through Christ to receive righteousness, aren’t there times that most of us have “run away”? Made mistakes? Decided we’re going to head out on our own? Just been plain stupid?
I know I have. And I feel like if I were God, I wouldn’t take me back.
But as I’m cleaning up taco-filled dog barf, standing in the alley in -15 degree windchill as they find that perfect place to pee, buy expensive food with real meat in it, brush dog hair off my favorite sweater, find holes in my new socks, urine on my floor, and Amos drool on my pillow, I realize I do these things because I love these stupid dogs. And if I do these things willingly, voluntarily, because I, in my limited way, love these dumb animals, then…could God, just maybe, love me even more?
So when I’ve run away again and I don’t want to come back or call out to God for help, I think about my dogs, and that story Jesus told about the sheep. I picture Amos in the rain, and that sheep in the hills, and I know that if I can understand love that much, then perhaps I can believe in God’s love. I see Him running through a thunderstorm, calling my name. I see Him hot and sweaty, worry and relief in His eyes, as He climbs down the side of the pit to carry me out. I see him suffering, humiliated, bleeding quietly, dying on a cross.